One Year Later: A year after the March 19 tornadoes, Jacksonville picks up the pieces of a wounded community

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Daniel Mayes, Editor-in-Chief

One year ago. An EF-3 tornado. $100 million in damage. All but seven campus buildings affected. Three academic buildings that were complete losses. Two weeks of missed class. Thirty-nine homes in the surrounding communities that were condemned. 6,000 volunteers that flooded into the town in the next few days.

There are several statistics bouncing around Jacksonville, Alabama this week.

One year ago, on March 19, 2018, the little college town that houses Jacksonville State University was slammed with a storm that altered many lives.

The statistic heard most often as those on campus and in the community look back on the events of that grim day?

None of those altered lives were taken.

“The biggest blessing of the tornadic event is that we lost no lives,” JSU president John Beehler said at a commemoration event on Tuesday. “We were blessed that it was spring break, and that no one was killed a year ago. The recent tornado in Lee County illustrates that it is far too easy to have loss of life.”

Hearing stories from survivors of the tornado in Jacksonville a year ago, it truly is amazing that such devastation didn’t result in a single death, like the Lee County tornado that claimed 23 lives just weeks ago.

Stories like Kate Mason’s, who rode out the tornado in the former Winn Place apartments while her roof was literally ripped from over her head.

Or Phany Gangbo’s, an International student whose first ever experience with a tornado was last year when her room in the International House was severely damaged while she stayed with her host family

Or Paul Lindsay’s, a veteran who settled in Jacksonville for a peaceful life after serving two stints in Iraq, who had his left arm amputated after an iron pipe hit him during the storm.

Or Meagan Medders’s, an employee of the since demolished and rebuilt Dollar General on Highway 204, who had just gotten under a table in the break room of the store before the roof collapsed in on her.

All of those individuals told their stories in a candlelight ceremony Tuesday night, 365 days to the hour of that night that has left such lasting impact for each of them.

These stories are echoed by the hundreds of students still on campus during spring break and the residents of a town hit hard. Those that were in Gamecock Village, The Reserve, or any of the other apartment complexes that were ravaged on that night. Those that lived in the over 400 houses in Jacksonville that received damage. The members of West Point Baptist Church, which was almost completely blown away by the tornado and has since been long finished off by bulldozers.

So much damage, so much devastation, so many people who lost all their possessions or their homes.

Yet, a year later, you sometimes have to be looking hard to even see the results of that March night.

You’ll still notice the spots of blank where hundreds of trees used to be. You’ll still see the hulking ruined desolation of Merrill Hall as the University fights for more insurance money before tearing it down. You’ll still inevitably have to walk around fences and cross under covered pathways as the few repairs that are finishing up around campus are completed.

One year later though, Jacksonville and its University have done so much healing for the little time they’ve had.

“It’s hard to believe that it’s already the one year anniversary, and it’s hard to believe how far we’ve come in rebuilding our campus in such a short period of time,” Beehler said on the anniversary of the storms. “FEMA personnel have told us that they’ve never seen a campus with such destruction come so far, so fast.”

Ask anyone what makes Jacksonville special, and they’ll immediately respond that it’s not the buildings and landscape that was lost or scarred, but its people. A people that came together to prove why the “Friendliest Campus in the South” moniker has little to do with the physical campus itself.

“It’s really a celebration of how far we’ve come so fast,” Beehler said. “It’s a celebration of the human spirit that came together to help us rebuild. We got knocked down physically and mentally, but we immediately took action.”

That human spirit saw thousands of volunteers, with a great number of them students or Jacksonville residents that were less affected than some, coming together to get a community back on its feet. Restoring a campus that was able to hold class just over two weeks later.

For a University that could have easily been affected for a long, long time, students were patient and understanding while recovery took place.

“We couldn’t have made the recovery that we have made without the students being patient with us as we scrambled and struggled through all the issues that we dealt with,” said Timothy B. King, the Vice President for Student Affairs at Jacksonville State.

“When we talk to our students, we find that the students really wanted to come back and rebuild JSU because they love it here,” Beehler stated. “Typically when there is a natural disaster, a university will lose 5%-10% of enrollment.”

Yet JSU hasn’t. A small dip of enrollment in Fall 2018 was followed by an increase that saw Spring 2019 actually boast more students than the pre-tornado Spring 2018.

A year later, JSU stands poised to rebound from the March 19 disaster better than before.

With repairs completed on all but three buildings, a new recreation center, and new-and-improved Merrill and Wallace Halls on the way in the next few years, JSU is putting the finishing touches on a remarkable recovery.

Although no one in Jacksonville will likely ever forget March 19, 2018, they are ready to put it in the rear-view mirror.

“In the wake of devastation and disaster, we all showed a true Gamecock spirit,” Beehler said on Tuesday. “We did not complain, we did not waver, we did not succumb to defeat. With the help of God and many others, we will come out of this victorious. That Gamecock spirit is just going to carry us through, no matter what hits us.”

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